A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, R, 95 mins.
2009, R, 95 mins.
Gerard Butler: Kable / Amber Valletta: Angie / Michael C. Hall: Ken Castle / Kyra Sedgwick: Gina Parker Smith / Alison Lohman: Trace / Chris "Ludacris" Bridges: Humanz Brother
Written and directed by Neveldine/Taylor
The only thing that would have made GAMER even moderately tolerable is if it came with its own ‘reset’ switch.
As a fairly avid video game
player myself, I can attest to the fact that even the most undesirable
first-person shooters I have encountered have given me the pleasure of
turning them abruptly off when I want to.
Unfortunately for GAMER, I was not so lucky sitting in a darkened theatre while being remorselessly bombarded with all of its
crude, lewd, deafeningly loud, and teeth-clenching hyperactive imagery,
the latter trait that I could very aptly describe as being the absolute
worst from the aesthetic playbook shooting style of Michael Bay...but cranked up to eleven.
dumb, immoral, and blood drenched action spectacles as much as the next
red-blooded man, but how can one enjoy the carnage in GAMER when –
nearly all throughout its agreeably short running time – it is next to
impossible to make any logical sense out of what’s happening?
GAMER is most certainly an empty and soulless thrill ride, to be
sure, but its hyperactive, seizure-inducing barrage of sadomasochistic
techno gore and wanton mayhem leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired.
There has rarely been a film shot in such an utterly incomprehensible
way that completely
alienates viewers like GAMER. The best analogy
is that its directors – the entity known as Neveldine/Taylor (more on
them in a bit) - employ handheld digital cameras, chaotic pans and tilts,
headache-causing editing, and just about every other schlocky cinematic trick in
the book to create action scenes that seriously look like something
vomitted on the screen. I
was dizzy within five minutes of this film: action pictures should excite and
thrill and not deplorably entice viewers to rush to medicine cabinet for
pain relief. GAMER is a film that requires Tylenol tablets to be
given out beforehand at the ticket booth.
film’s technical sheen is a wholehearted and miserable failure, but
what’s even more oddly condescending about GAMER is what a hypocritical
film it is from a thematic point-of-view: its laughable attempts at
finger-pointing social commentary are inept at best.
What this futuristic, dystopian sci-fi flick is trying to say, I
think, is that the vast global commercialization of video game violence
has in fact destroyed the moral fabric of society.
Yet…honestly…GAMER is a gratuitously explicit and bombastic
auctioneer that is the very epitome of the brainless, commercialized, and
easily digestible mega-violent entertainments that it is also lambasting.
This is an ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black: GAMER
unintentionally festers within its own glaring double standards.
film’s hypocritical stance was not enough, then its ultimate undoing is
that its premise is not altogether original, especially when one considers
that it dives into the dangers of computer technology against human free
will (been there, done than) and the fanatical loyalty people have towards
reality-based, freak show blood sports (definitely been there, done that).
Now, GAMER certainly has a nifty and inventive arc in its story,
but its never truly developed and embellished: it’s just an anchor for
the film’s unbridled savagery. The
story takes place at an unspecified time in the future when society has
essentially been living vicariously on the Internet (okay…maybe this is not so
high concept and futuristic). Incredibly
advanced video games have become the predominant mode of entertainment for
the masses, which allows players to fully control other living, human
avatars. One game in particular is the most popular and fiendish of
them all: it is a sickeningly violent shoot ‘em up game very
appropriately called “Slayers” where players from around the world are
able to control death row inmates in battles against other players that
involve a considerable amount of ammunition fired, things being blown up,
and many human beings being killed in grisly ways.
how do the gamers control these inmates?
Mind control, silly. Actually,
it’s a bit more technical than that.
By radically altering the human avatars' brain chemistry, players
are able to make them do whatever they want or say via a computerized mind
link, which has been concocted by the game’s designer, billionaire Ken
Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a laughably terrible debut performance here), who has made such a vast fortune off of Slayer and other games
that his earnings have far surpassed Bill Gates.
Now, much like in THE RUNNING MAN, the inmates do have one
insurance policy: if they are able to make it through 30 battles – with
the help of their gamer users – then they will be freed immediately.
One of the current and very popular heroes of the game is Kable
(Gerard Butler) who is played by a teenage user named Simon (Logan Lerman)
and looks poised to actually securing his freedom.
ordeal of playing one deadly and superhumanly impossible game after another is hellish enough for Kable,
but he continues to do so for a chance to get out of his virtual reality
prison so he can be returned to his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), who is
also the unlucky participant in another different reality-based video game
herself (which is arguably the sicker of the two). Of course, there is
a secret underground resistance (led by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, in
a lamentably underwritten role) that wants to get Kable free so that they
can all show Castle’s game for what it really is (yet, don’t the
billions of people that tune in to watch this simulated game with real
human guinea pigs realize that it is a form of torture and imprisonment
against one’s will?). Unfortunately,
the vile, ruthless, and cunning Castle uses all of his monetary and
technological resources to ensure that Kable never makes it out alive.
the idea of human avatars being played by bloodthirsty teenage boys is
interesting enough, but the script never allows it to gestate into
something more compelling. Instead,
the film goes the cheapest and sleaziest jokes possible while exploring
the depraved future world of Internet and video game fanatics (for
example: there is
a cheaply perverse recurring image of a mostly naked, chronically obese man that salivates
like a sexual deviant at every turn of the VR games he plays in).
The sim-styled game that Kable’s wife, for example, participates
in is truly a reprehensible and woman-degrading spectacle: it is populated by real people that are
totally controlled by their master users, right down to their names,
clothing styles, twisted sexual proclivities, and immoral mannerisms.
One simmed character in particular, named Rick Rape (hardy-har), is a putrid
creation and very aptly named (played in a seriously embarrassing "wtf
was he thinking" performance by HEROES’ Milo Ventimiglia).
His user mimes all of his actions, which mostly is reduced to being
a sleazy abuser of women. Hmmm…do
these games not have moderators?
going on about the film’s seedy veneer may be beside the point, seeing
as there are little attempts made at story or character development.
All that Neveldine/Taylor are interested in is the most basic
of rudimentary plots to serve as a crutch for the maelstrom of
auditory/visual noise their maliciously throw at viewers.
Using lightning fast edits, strobe lighting, digital visual
effects, an intensely hurried and dizzying queasy-cam sensibility, and a
barrage of other mind-numbing sleight of hand manipulation, the directors
throw caution – and cadence – out the window.
The self-indulgence of their nauseating style easily shows their
self-congratulatory obsession with making GAMER look cool and hip, which
has the opposite intended effect. Even
the swiftest looking video games around today have a sure-footed tempo and
flow regarding the action; we usually can make sense of what’s
happening in them. GAMER thinks it's submerging us within the look and feel of
what it would be like to be in a game, but there’s rarely a moment where
it feels truly transformative, mostly because the action is just
unfathomably frenzied and bewildering.
How any player could manipulate Kable through these games is one of
the film's great mysteries.
performances, alas, are equally atrocious.
Kyra Sedgwick, Alison Lohman, Amber Valletta are all fine
actresses, but their participation here smells of a knee-jerk attempt for
a quick pay check. What’s truly
frighten is just how hideously wrongheaded Castle is played by Michael C.
Hall, making his big screen debut from the small screen (he’s the very
secure and solid epicenter of HBO’s freakishly good DEXTER).
Hall definitely has a strong screen presence and a cocky bravado to
boot, but as Castle he seemingly hits every broad and overplayed note,
hamming it up to incredulous levels of overkill (it’s one thing for a
performance to be one of reckless abandon and to come out swinger for the
rafters, but the undisciplined Hall here is borderline aggravating).
Strangely enough, it is Gerard Butler himself – not usually given
credit for being a “good” actor – that gives GAMER’s most
understated and grounded performance.
Some readers out there may be giving their collective heads a shake by wondering how I could be so calculatingly spiteful of GAMER while previously giving high and supportive praise for Neveldine/Taylor’s two past films, CRANK 1 and 2. I think the answer is rather clear: The CRANK films had no pretensions for being something they were not. Both of them – especially the sequel – had a sort of reckless, unrestrained, and unflinchingly broad sensibility, so much so that I was willing to embrace and accept all of its unapologetic freakishness and inventiveness (that, and the films made me laugh uncontrollably after awhile at all of their uninhibited behaviour). Those were mindless, tasteless, and immoral films, but they were categorically fun. There is no freewheeling joy in GAMER, just overbearing artifice that only serves to disorient instead of entertain. On top of that, it’s one of those really intellectually vacant and smugly obvious films that tries to preach a sobering message about society’s exploitative lust for murder and sadistic brutality while simultaneously being guilty of committing the sins it's chastising.
When the fun is lost as it is here, then it most certainly is 'Game Over", indeed.